Old English and the Genesis of Modern English

Updated on March 27, 2018
Mary Phelan profile image

I am an art historian and have a Master's degree in English literature. My interests include popular science, language and folklore.

The Origin of Modern English

The use of language is one of the most profound areas of human interaction. In addition to sharing thoughts and ideas, people who converse in a common tongue are engaging in cultural activity, connecting with a tradition of sounds and metaphors rich with the echoes of the past and resonant with the concerns of the present.

This definition applies to languages that are no longer in common use as much as it does to the languages we use every day. For this reason, I dislike the use of the expression, “dead” language. No language that survives in altered form through the expression of an in-use language is ever truly dead. For instance, though Old English is no longer spoken as the Anglo Saxons spoke it, its sounds survive through the speakers of the modern tongue. In the tenth century, gese meant “yes”, nae meant “no” and ond meant “and”. The word meant “now” and Old English pronouns like “we” and “he” are in use today.

Celts or Britons occupied the British isles until the coming of the Romans. With the breakdown of the Roman Empire by the fifth century, the Anglo-Saxon tribes of northern Germany invaded the land that we now call England. This invasion changed the language of the natives forever and in time, the language of the entire world. The English language as we know it did not exist; the prevailing language of Britain was a polyglot of Celtic tongues overlaid with words and phrases still in use from the years of Roman occupation. For instance, the words “chester” and “caster” that still feature in many English town names derive from the word “castra”, the Latin word for camp or settlement.

But the Angle, Jute and Saxon tribes from North Germany brought with them a new language, Old English. Over time, the Anglo-Saxon influence grew more pervasive, leading to the many towns and places ending in “tun”, or “ton”, the genesis of our word, town. A “tun” actually meant “an enclosed piece of ground”. The name of the English town Chepstow literally means “market place”, and reads “ceapstow” in Old English. This naming of a town demonstrates the significance of trading and bartering in Anglo-Saxon times. Translation is not always straightforward, however.

What a lovely tungolgim!
What a lovely tungolgim!

The Runic Connection

One of the problems with translating Old English directly is that its scriptural form involved Runic characters. The Runic alphabet was a system of writing used by the Germanic tribes of northern Germany, from the third century onward, for example, the letters “a” and “e” connected to one another. Runic characters gradually left the written language in favour of the Roman alphabet. However, a number of the sounds still survive, for example, the “th” sound, which is now heard only in English and Icelandic. In fact, Icelandic is the only living language that preserves “Þ”, a runic letter, which has a “th” sound.

Context is Everything

One of the difficulties in translating Old English words is that context was much more significant in the ancient language. In our streamlined times, we use the word “love” to cover a range of emotions. But the Anglo-Saxons used a range of words to describe love. For example, love in marriage was Brýdlufe, love of money was feohlufu, heartfelt love was ferhþlufu and spiritual love was gástlufu - and there are many more.

Steorra means “star” while a tungolgim is a “bright star”.

When the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived from northern Germany, they adored Woden, Thor and other pagan gods. The Anglo-Saxons eventually embraced Christianity, but the names we use for the days of the week reflect this pagan tradition.

Days of the Week

 
 
Sunnandæg
Sunday
Mðnandæg
Monday
Tiwesdæġ
Tuesday
Wðduesdæg
Wednesday
þunresdæġ
Thursday
Fríandæg
Friday
Sæteresdæg
Saturday
Days of the Week

Sentence Structure

Conversion to Christianity began in the 600’s and by the 700’s, the majority of Anglo-Saxons believed in God and joined in the European scholarly tradition of writing. Church clerks kept records of baptisms, marriages and funerals, and pious monks began to record their thoughts in script. Through these writings, we can see how modern English has preserved the sentence structure of the older language; put simply, the subject is followed by the verb, which is followed by the object. The following sentence is a line from a poem Song of Creation, composed by Caedmon, a holy man, in the seventh century: Nü we sculan herian heofonrices weard.

Roughly translated, it reads “Now we must praise the heavenly guardian”.

The meaning of “Nü weis evident, while “sculan” is a verb that roughly translates as “must”. “Herien” is the plural of the verb praise of honour and “weard” means guard or guardian. From the word “heofonrices” we identify our modern word, heaven.

Head Rhyming and Imagery

The Anglo-Saxons began to compose rhymes, but not with the rhymes at the end of the lines, as we know them. Instead, they practised head rhyming, placing the emphasis at the beginning of a line of poetry. It is from this tradition that we get expressions like “fine and fitting” and “hale and hearty.”

The Household

Since Anglo-Saxon life was centred about small, domestic settlements, modern English has inherited an entire raft of household words and terms, virtually unchanged in the past thousand years. Old English words are italicised in the following sentence:

Bid the mann with the beard welcuman as he opens the duru and walks across the flor. Light the candel and offer him a cuppe of water. Cut the bread with a cnif and serve it to him with hunig. Lend him an eare while he talks and raise a finger when he is finished speaking. Later, offer him a bedd for the niht and bid him slaep well until morning.

The words miht and riht were also in use, and only acquired the “g” by Middle English times.

 
 
miht
might
niht
night
riht
right

Changing Forms

Other words survive in archaic English, for instance, the Old English word for broom is besoma, descending to us as “besom” while gearn meant spun wool or yarn. A chair is a stol, while bliss simply meant – and still does - happiness. Their folc are our people, while to setl meant to sit down or settle. Curiously, the Old English word disc means plate. Even more intriguingly, an eag duru was a window, literally translating as “eye door”.

Ancient and Modern

In the modern world, we often talk of swinging into gear, assuming that the phrase must refer to motor mechanisms. Yet, the Old English word for “ready” was gearwung.

When I am handing you a book, I am giving it to you – and the Old English word for “give” was hand. The word for the anatomical hand was “brad” – over time, did the population adopt the verb “hand” as a metonym in place of the anatomical word?

And the word “brad” was just one of many that did not make it to our time.

I'm feeling werge..!
I'm feeling werge..!

The Ones That Did Not Make It

A number of Old English words are so comically unalike their modern counterparts, that they make one wonder what got lost in translation.

Larerow was the OE word for “apothecary”, an archaic occupation which was a cross between a doctor and a pharmacist. The ancient word is seemingly unrelated to the two modern words. Who would guess that gebleod meant “beautiful” and cuopel meant “boat” and that himming meant “boot”. I have never described anything as remotely fremung (good) and I have never felt remotely werge (tired).

Other Connections

The Shakespeare Connection

This linguistic legacy is magnificent and is made even more so by the link with the past found in the writings of Shakespeare. One example is found in the Cardinal’s speech from King Henry 6, Part 2 (3:1:235-237):

That he should die is worthy policy;
But yet we want a colour for his death:
'Tis meet he be condemn'd by course of law.

The Bard was not indulging in sixteenth-century slang but using a corruption of the Old Englsh word maeÞ, which meant “suitable”.

The German Connection

Because Old English was a North Germanic language, many of its words survive in modern German today. Examples are gewis meaning “of course”, morgen meaning “morning” and regn or rain, and even, winter.

In addition to German, other languages influenced the Anglo-Saxon tongue. The most prevalent legacy was with the fallen Roman Empire. One example is the Old English word for district, regio, the Latin word for “area”.

Sources

  • Anglo Saxon England by Frank Stenton, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1943
  • English Literature by Anthony Burgess, Longman Group UK Ltd, Essex, 1948


Questions & Answers

  • What is the meaning of "Gastlufu"?

    It means "spiritual love" or "soul's love."

  • What is the old English form of the word 'you'?

    Ou

© 2018 Mary Phelan

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